Or You Can Bury It

May 22, 2008

I’ve been watching the small row about the upcoming Kramers Ergot 7, the influential art-comics anthology. Chris Mautner has the best summary, with his own thoughts; the short version is that it’s an expensive book, so some readers feel priced out. More interesting, others see a tension with comics’ populist roots. At least one person thought art should reach as many people as possible. Others spoke of a need to expand the audience.

I suppose people who can will buy Kramers and the rest will borrow it and conveniently lose touch. But the row raises the question of whom art, any art, should reach.

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First, charging for art is always dicey. Gallery artists know this better than anyone, with wealthy buyers speculating on art like stock options or oil futures. But art is only treated like a commodity; good luck making a living with it. Many artists moonlight: Rimbaud (quit poetry to run guns), Joyce (taught at Berlitz), and half the comics artists now working (drawing spot illos). But the right combination, like a dog and a bald kid, can lead to absurd riches.

I know no better chart of these tensions than The Gift by Lewis Hyde, a mix of anthropology, economics, and poetic associations. Hyde supported his own art– criticism– with straight jobs as an electrician and carpenter before becoming a teacher. Read it, and keep in mind that music, like air, apparently wants to be free; that playing in the Hollywood sandbox now costs upwards of $100 million dollars; and that some artists make works that exist for just a few minutes before they wash away.

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Second, on Koya-san, the mountain at the center of the Shingon Buddhist universe, scores of monasteries have unimaginably beautiful religious art. I used to live by the foot of the mountain, but I saw little art. My trips up usually ended with ten empty cans and the shakes next to a coffee vending machine. I can’t read Buddhist art well, my own limitation, so I probably got as much out of the coffee as I would have out of the art.

Boss Coffee in Koyasan

The writer Alex Kerr has a better Koya-san story in his book Lost Japan. He’s taking some friends there (pardon if I misremember parts) from Osaka to show them Traditional Japan. During the train ride, he gripes about the cancerous urban development. Once he arrives, he gripes about the crummy town. Eventually, he lucks into seeing a particularly fine statue of the Buddha. It’s beautiful; he’s moved. The next day he discovers that they only reveal this statue for one day every few hundred years. The rest of the time it stays hidden from everyone, even the monks.

Another Japan observer, Chris Marker, notes in his film Sans Soleil that “censorship is not the mutilation of the show, it is the show.  … It points to the absolute by hiding it.”  He’s reading soft porn, and the Vatican’s treasures, and old Shinto sex totems, but the idea expands past that. One could say it might be better that a work of art not be seen.

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Finally, on some obscure Greek island there’s a movie screen in a field. Robert Beavers, the protege and lover of Gregory Markopoulos, has been following the elder filmmaker’s last wishes and restoring his life’s work for display. On 27-28 June 2008 he will show the final parts of ENIAIOS to those who want to come. Campsites are available.

Temenos Screening Site

The site is called the Temenos, and watching these movies thus becomes a pilgrimage. I’ve only seen one; it relied on lush images and classical allusions. I understood only parts. Were I to travel to Lyssaraia to watch the 80-hour film cycle, I would certainly educate myself better, rather than rely on travel to make sure I’m worth what I’m watching.

Of course, Beavers could just upload them all to YouTube so the maximum number of people can watch them while simultaneously downloading porn and getting their scores. Now that we can fit the Complete Works of Humankind on the head of a pin, there’s no reason not to, if it’s just information, another commodity.

But there are different kinds of information. Some asks to be free; some asks to be enclosed. Some is enclosed, in a market, a box in a monastery, or a small community of people with the tools to read and appreciate it. By being so enclosed, it can increase its force, for those able to understand and see it, like water flows faster when it’s focused, like when as kids we put a thumb on the end of a hose and ran through the spray.

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